THE PHYSIOLOGICAL TRANSITION FROM FASTING TO FEEDING IN WEANED ELEPHANT SEAL PUPS

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Abstract

We studied energetics and food utilization in young elephant seals as they were first introduced to solid food following their long post-weaning fast. Using radioactive tracer techniques, we monitored changes in body composition, protein metabolism, and metabolic rate during fasting and initial feeding. In fasting animals, fat stores supplied nearly all energetic requirements. In feeding animals, 49% of protein ingested was retained as body tissue, allowing protein mass to increase. Body fat was lost at rates comparable to rates in fasting animals and continued to fuel the bulk of metabolism. Weight loss was arrested when animals consumed 786 g/d, or 40 kcal/kg0.75/d, which was far less than their metabolic rates (63–206 kcal/kg0.75/d). Surprisingly, the young seals were able to maintain weight and store protein while energy intake was below metabolic needs. This was possible because animals gained weight as water; they retained wellhydrated proteinaceous tissue while losing poorly-hydrated adipose tissue.

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